Seven people must defend one village against a group of bandits in the greatest Japanese film of all time…
If you take one image from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film, Seven Samurai, it is the image of Toshiro Mifune in full flight railing at his six companions about the plight of being a peasant in a world ruled by samurai. The film’s heart is about the struggle between the two groups and yet, its heart can only be healed by a union between the two disparate groups where their synergies must be in tune, if only for a short time.
Set in 1586, near the end of the Warring States period of Japan (CE 1467 – CE 1603), the story of Seven Samurai has been copied so many times that I’m not sure if there is a point to rehashing but for the benefit of those who’ve never heard of the story (who are you people, anyway?) here goes: a group of bandits who regularly maraud the countryside come across their next stop, a small village set in a valley with high mountains on either side, and decide to come back to steal their rice yet again when it’s ready to harvest and not now. They leave but the villagers overhear them. This triggers a crisis in the village where they decide among themselves that they won’t hand over their rice again but they can’t stop the bandits. They instead choose to hire samurai to do the job for them. Into this comes seven warriors who, for various reasons, take on the unrewarding task. Together with the villagers, they stand alone against a numerically superior force.
Now, that is simplifying the plot of the film to its most basic. Seven Samurai is so much more. Its fundamental reason for existence is to show the perilous nature of society and how one group that have factional and governmental control of other groups can affect everyone in their daily lives. The samurai in the film look down on the peasantry because, well, they’re peasants. Their only job in society is to feed everyone else and till the land. So when the heroes in the film discover a wealth of armour and equipment in the village, they conclude, correctly, that the villagers have ambushed and killed samurai who passed through. Their anger however quickly turns to shame when Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) blasts them with the fact that if the samurai weren’t fighting amongst themselves for control of the country, the villagers could live in peace and not panic when a samurai arrived on their doorstep. The farmers are not trained in war, the samurai are. The man who knows how to kill should know when not to. On top of this lesson, the film also grapples with the intersectional nature of the protagonist’s fight. Normally, the samurai and the farmers would never interact with each other, their lives moved in different circles. But here, they work together for a common goal. But Japanese society, in a possible self-reflection of the Japan of 1954, is so codified that even working together, the two groups cannot fraternise together. This is exemplified by the growing attraction and love between Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), the young member of the samurai and Shino (Keiko Tsushima), a villager’s daughter who has her hair cut by her father Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara) in an attempt to disguise her gender from the coming would-be saviours. The scene of the hair cutting is brutal and shocking, punctuated by Shino’s cries and shrieks, and Kurosawa never tries to have Manzo justify his actions to anyone, he just lets the scene inform the audience of its inhumane tone. As we see it unfold, we realise he’s carrying out a barbaric act precisely because samurai do act in this barbaric way to lesser women (i.e. farmers). The samurai themselves ruminate on the ineffectual nature of their existence in society as leader Kambei and his old lieutenant discuss the matter over the entire course of the film’s three-plus hour runtime. Every one of the samurai run the gamut of emotional range but each of them are unique and special to the cause and each time one of them is lost, you feel the loss because Kurosawa makes you care with the time he spends getting to know each of them.
Into all of this story and character dynamics, comes Kurosawa, who matches his skill as a storyteller in his script with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, with his skill as a director. His (then) revolutionary use of telephoto lenses allowed him to restage action scenes over and over again without worrying the actors about giving the same performance time after time. This overlapping of scenes gives fluidity to the action sequences that had not been seen before. The scene in the film where the alarm in the village is raised and the samurai leap into action, running toward the danger, showcases this use of camera lenses showing shot after shot of the warriors sprinting from left to right in a rhythmic fashion. Nobody was doing this kind of camera move in 1954. On top of that, the actual fighting is done in a fast, certain manner. Sword strikes are measured before being delivered, arrow shots are quietly poised and released without any fanfare only to quickly cut to the strike on their target. Melee attacks are messy affairs, with long takes over the action, where the lucky stay alive and the dead are forgotten in favour of the next target. The fact that 60 years later, the action scenes still hold up to scrutiny is a statement on Kurosawa’s skills. While we’re talking about the camerawork, the use of closeups is nothing short of revelatory in its exploration of the characters and their motivations. Kurosawa gets right into their faces, with that wonderful stark black and white photography, with the audience prisoner to their hopes, fears, prophecies and realities. There’s no looking away and we are the samurai as we see the effect of the warring period on these people whose lives depend on the very people whose own class of citizenry are responsible for the peasants’ misery. Lastly, the final day of the bandit’s attack is a masterclass in editing and direction with the film building the pent up rage of the remaining bandits into a tsunami of horses and men that break against the defences that the farmers and samurai have built and all our heroes fighting savagely and bravely to rout the bad guys. Shot in an almost documentary, on-the-ground, style, the sequence releases steam every so often that by the time the final moment happens and one samurai, in particular, is on their knees sobbing at the loss all around them, you’re there with them.
The cast of the film make its soul speak with a quiet and eloquent cadence, using both the high and the low of human experience to depict the quandary Kurosawa poses for his players. Takashi Shimura (Ikiru, Godzilla, Kagemusha) plays the role of the wistfully smiling samurai leader Kambei as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. He spends a lot of the film trying to show his younger charges and the villagers that there’s a better way to see the world, that the ends sometimes do not justify the means, that there’s meaning in a person’s life and that just because you were born into a lower social class does not make your life subordinate to another’s. His speeches find their greatest fan in Katsushiro who follows his heart by wanting to be Kambei’s student and who follows his heart again when he falls for Shino. His love for her is both fixative and transitory and his efforts mirror Kikuchiyo’s in that he sees the good that samurai can do and wants to fix the injustices. Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Red Beard, High and Low) IS the heart of the film pouring forth in his energetic Kikuchiyo all of his rage and giddiness at being a warrior among samurai. Having studied the movement of lions for the role, his young vagabond paces up and down measuring each situation and person. His speeches go to the heart of the plight of the farmers and speak to the highest ideals that the samurai espouse without him actually knowing it. Yoshio Tsuchiya (Red Beard, Invasion of the Astro Monster, Yojimbo) as Rikichi provides a look into the farmers from the perspective of a man who knows something must be done. While he cannot fight as the samurai do, he wants to end the scourge of the bandits for his village and his own private reasons which typify the losses the peasants have undergone more so than just their rice and livelihoods. His looks of anger and desperation are what Kurosawa hones in on the most and Tsuchiya’s expressions and looks work wonders to annunciate the crucifixion of the villagers. His exact opposite is Manzo who is convinced that nothing good can come of bringing samurai into the village. Rather than play him as weasely, Kamatari Fujiwara plays him as a resigned man who does what he does because life has taught him better. He’s the character Matashichi that he played in Hidden Fortress if that character had everything fall apart on him. For him, death at the hands of the bandits would absolve him from his worry. Living would be the lesser of goals for him and Kurosawa doesn’t cheat and make Manzo the subject of scorn. His lot in life is not to be sneered at. In fact, if anything the rest of the samurai in their performances share a similar idea to Manzo. Their way of life is endangered and they know the chapter of history with them in it is fast ending.
Seven Samurai can be many things: a samurai film that exemplifies its warrior code and spirit precisely because it rejects its trappings, a commentary of the stratified nature of (then) modern Japanese society wrapped in a disguised moral tale, an examination of the proletariat in the form of the farmers and their suffering through events not under their control or it simply can just be an amazing adventure film where good triumphs because good men refuse to stand aside while evil carries on. With such a long runtime, you could segment any one of its three hours and it would be an excellent movie or episode of TV in and of itself. Every filmmaker owes their breaks that the audience allows them to Akira Kurosawa’s film. Every samurai film made after it carries the film’s concepts and DNA within their delivery and implementation. Every cinema lover deserves to see it in its full, uncut glory. Simply put, it is not just great Japanese cinema. It is great cinema, period.
Seven Samurai returns to UK cinemas nationwide from 29 September 2021 as part of the BFI’s Japan 2021 season. Find a screening near you.
Home media details
Distributor: Criterion Collection (US)
Edition: Blu-ray edition (2010)
While there’s an excellent blu ray available from the BFI in the UK, the main reason to own a US blu ray player to buy Criterion blu rays and the main reason to buy Criterion blu rays to own Akira Kurosawa’s films. Criterion love Kurosawa and I love Criterion for loving him. The 2010 blu ray of the film is bursting with extras to sate every fan of Seven Samurai, from the newly inducted to the seasoned Kurosawa fan. The transfer itself is lovely with the black and white film looking particularly crisp and sharp (not bad for a film that’s celebrating its sixth decade) and the audio, while only mono and stereo, is clear and precise with Fumio Hayasaka’s resonant score cascading along with the dialogue is understandable and front and centre. But as I said, the extras is where the purchasing choice is to be decided for this release.
On top of the 60 page booklet which abounds with Kurosawa and Seven Samurai-related essays, we also get two commentary tracks, one from Kurosawa expert Michael Jeck, recorded all the way back in 1988 for Criterion’s Laserdisc of the film and a newer group commentary track between five film scholars and critics, recorded separately and spliced together. We get the Seven Samurai related part of Toho’s massive Kurosawa documentary It’s Wonderful To Create (The Hidden Fortress release by Criterion has its own section from the same source) and a video interview with Kurosawa from 1993 conducted by Nagisa Oshima of all people! We also get a recent documentary created by Criterion focusing on the role and position of the samurai within history and Japanese society. Wrapping up some BTS and film poster galleries are the original trailers created in Japan for the film. This kind of release is the reason we’re all supposed to be film collectors, in my opinion. You simply cannot be disappointed with this release.